If familiarity were the same thing as understanding, it would be supererogatory to raise the question of what the media mean. Nothing is more generally familiar in our time, nothing deals more consistently with the familiar, and nothing familiarizes masses of men more rapidly with certain classes of events. Surely it should be enough for us to acknowledge that the media mean what they say on the subjects they process and disseminate.

But familiarity is not, in all respects, at least, even an approximation of understanding, and in some respects we are forced by experience to acknowledge it can frustrate understanding, blocking even the recognition of events taking place under our noses. By some distressing paradox, familiarity breeds estrangement. The most constant light of revelation or exposure desensitizes the organism to both radiance and gloom.

When the commuter in transit between dream and the routine of his employment turns on the car radio and dials across the bands, he will recognize not only familiar signals but that the thump of music and the theme of voices is essentially identical from all stations. Moreover, it is the sound of yesterday and the day before. The commuter might—perhaps he must–entertain the fancy that the mechanical reproduction of music and speech sounds like yesterday because it is yesterday and tomorrow and tomorrow insofar as we are intended to understand them. The speakers and musicians are undeniably human and familiarized to a numbing power, but they seem to exist in an artifice or counterfeit of time in which nothing ripens because nothing call. And if they be human like us, then surely we must share with them that alternative time consisting in an apparently infinite repetition of the same programmed hours. But to register the sense of eerie tension between the temporality of natural existence and that mechanically idealized by media technology may be to find the peephole needful to understanding the reality of change wrought by the media.

Things as they are, wrote Wallace Stevens, are changed upon the blue guitar. Tune the instrument differently and you get different changes, languages at least partly incompatible with one another, requiring at least some common modalities for translation if we are to stabilize meaning in the flux.

“The dead do not know they have died,” the Greeks said, skirmishing with the limits of understanding by play with the ambiguities of this semantic puzzle. To borrow the form of the conundrum, we may say that Statistical Man (for whom media programs are programmed) does not know he has evolved from Industrial Man, though he is of the statistical persuasion that he evolved somewhat more remotely from the Ape. We cannot say with clarity, in the language now available, when or how ”we” became the media’s ”we,” suffering identity change as we were disengaged from former collectivities of consciousness and were incorporated in the novelty emerging from the ingenuity of the species. Still (I suppose) for most of us there persists an august and uneasy sense of doubleness, as if we were each both Gulliver and Lilliputian in a kingdom claimable by neither. Now when we see ourselves in Gulliverian aspect we seem monstrous, or at least unassimilable, in our Lilliputian aspect rather pitiable but safely assimilated in the complacencies of a public no longer even dependent on massive populations but stabilized by the techniques of the media.

Well, from the hand of God or Nature, we are the Gulliverian species, and if we have been reincorporated as Lilliputians, it is by the mechanized idealization of the intelligible world by the media; (idealization in the more perilous sense of the term, to be sure, a disengagement of language from the tests of immediate sense perception and impassioned sentiment, a situation where ”concreteness” and “specificity” are terms of idealized usage, estranged from root meanings, honored by abuse, the more abused the more honored.)

Media language generally perpetuates the linguistic forms of ordinary language, but usage (the central concept in considering the meaning of language) is most certainly changed. Frequency is a determinant in usage, and nothing is more obvious than that the desiccated metaphor broadcast correctly implies a frequency that has vastly accelerated shifts in usage. In the meanwhile the use of “usage” in scholarly or philosophical colloquia has ignominiously fallen behind the eventuality. No wonder if confusion is compounded or if the unassimilable Gulliver wishes for the equivalent of a Rosetta stone so he could just once understand the meaning of what Dan Rather is saying with such flair and confidence in a language overwhelmingly familiar in its mystification.

In his book Sense and Sensibilia epistemologist J. L. Austin uproots some of the weedy language of idealist philosophy by demonstrating that ordinary language contains more ambiguity, precision, and precision in ambiguity than the coinages contrived by philosophers to make up for its presumed deficiencies. He calls the replacement of terms long stabilized by the common experience of the race an abuse and says, ”You can not abuse ordinary language without paying for it.” The kicker is in the adjective. What he means by ordinary is not that familiarized more and more by extensive media usage. He is drawing on the root sense of the word ordinary, with its vital implication that language orders experience and expresses a perceived order, leading to consequences of ordinate behavior, ordinate love or fear, and an ordinate communion with one’s fellows.

What he stops short of considering—and who would not quail before the mystery and dread of the enigma?—is that abused language transforms the reality and the role of the species in nature, so that it becomes ordinary by changing what is ordinate for the race. And what if the real purpose of the media—its fundamental meaning, if you like—were not enlightenment but crowd control in an environment conditioned overwhelmingly by technologies of transportation, food production, consumption, and housing? Consider as symptomatic the media exploitation of the laugh machine.

Heaven-sent laughter, with its traditional powers to console and delight has also traditionally been to serve as social regulator, the guardian of taboos and their assassin in the successions of history. Denatured laughter, prescribed by some decades of training with the TV laugh machine, eliminates the parochialism engendered by class, race, and religion, and grants a freedom of social passage to the denatured scion of a stock biased by one set or another of historic circumstances.

Crowd control is properly the business of de jure governments, which require in peacetime that the population will be productive and acquiescent, in wartime that it will endure or perpetrate any enormity. Between the two World Wars it was widely believed that the social regulation delegated to modem media would serve the political state. In the continuing archaism of communist governments, this appears to be the case. But in the West, shepherded by media monopolies based in the U.S., the media have shown themselves a force majeure without a nominal political master, maintaining what media spokesmen call an “adversary relationship” to constitutionally designated authorities. Perhaps we do not have a media­controlled government, though the laughter of Norman Lear and the Archie Bunker laugh machine drastically regulates the three nominal bodies. It is within the power—incrementally established over the last decades—of the media to revise the whole social contract by modification of language through unexamined shifts in usage. The nub of the matter was put ingenuously but tellingly by one TV commentator I heard recently who said, “The question in this election year is, what kind of Constitution do we want ours to be?” (Since there are no italics on the tube, nor need be, the italics are mine. I italicize to call attention to the words offering—surely desirable!—freedom of choice for the ordinary “is it” the Supreme Court is hired to define.) The media will poll the population and report what kind of Constitution is wanted and—presto, changeo—the slide over from de jure to de jure will be accomplished by those in de facto control. Why bother with antiquated means of amending the Constitution? The actual alteration, while surely of historic significance, is not among the classes of event the media are constituted to bring into the light.

Highly visible themselves, the media have rendered invisible and unspeakable (if not unthinkable) the powers of usurpation and greed that have emerged in the new enclaves of the technological collectivity. More than church or state in our time, the media wage an indefatigable crusade against bigotry, injustice, insensitivity, discrimination, war, ignorance, racism, sexism, agism, etc. It is anybody’s guess—uninformed, of course, or informed only by voices from the past chanting likelihood—that these things flourish as never before.

Have not the friends of Fred Friendly and the off-camera sponsors of Dan Rather vanquished even the taints of bigotry and hypocrisy that flawed the slave-owning authors of the Constitution?

Maybe not.

As Auden saw it once:


The vanquished powers were glad


To be invisible and free; without remorse

Struck down the sons who strayed into their course,

And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.